From David Roberts, Kate Aronoff, and more…
A Green New Deal would require a plan that fully decarbonizes the economy, invests trillions of dollars, and provides a federal job guarantee, while addressing and mitigating historical inequalities. (Oh, and it might also include such “additional measures such as basic income programs [or] universal health care programs.”)
Preferably, no one who receives any fossil fuel funding should serve on the committee (which would rule out a good swath of senior Democrats).
“If they’re not going to develop the plan,” says Evan Weber of Sunrise, “we will. We’ll get together the scientists, the engineers, the community leaders, the mayors and city councilors, create the plan ourselves, and go out and build the public and political support to make it happen over the next two years.”
As Weber concedes, “GND” can mean just about anything at the moment. Now the race is on to make it mean something in particular — to produce something that activists and wonks can agree on, that politicians can run on, and that the public can rally around.
Taking innovation seriously means instituting a rising carbon tax. It means tripling or quadrupling the US energy-research budget and substantially increasing (ideally performance-based) grants, tax credits, prizes, and other financial incentives. And it means implementing and gradually tightening performance standards, on both energy efficiency and pollution.
Taxing, spending, and regulating: These are all things a true climate-innovation agenda requires. And they are all things the Republican Party, in its current configuration, is incapable of supporting.
There is immense potential energy in the GND, a concentration of social attention and intensity. But converting that heat to power — to real results on the ground — will involve a great deal of political and policy engineering, almost all of which lies ahead.
The GND has great potential, but then, American political history is a long story of wasted potential, of waves of progressive enthusiasm breaking on the rocky shores of Washington, DC, to no lasting effect.
History of Green New Deal
The first use of the term “GND” in the US may trace to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who called for one in a 2007 column (and in his book Hot, Flat, and Crowded) as a kind of green globalism. (Funny thing, politics.) As Kaufman notes in a story on this history, none other than Barack Obama was taken by Friedman’s idea and included a GND in his 2008 platform. (It can also be argued that Obama’s stimulus bill was a proto-GND in itself.)
Around the same time, in 2007, British economist Richard Murphy began discussing a GND and founded the Green New Deal Group, which funneled some ideas to the Labour Party.
The global economy is facing a ‘triple crunch’. It is a combination of a credit-fuelled financial crisis, accelerating climate change and the looming peak in oil production. These three overlapping events threaten to develop into a perfect storm, the like of which has not been seen since the Great Depression. To help prevent this from happening, and to lay the foundations of the economic systems of the future, we need a Green New Deal.
There is still time. Act now and a positive course of action based on the framwork set out in A Green New Deal can pull the world back from economic and environmental meltdown.
Prevent Another Economic Meltdown With A European Green New Deal
This article was first posted on Social Europe on 4 October 2018:
n the acres of recent coverage about the causes of the Lehman Brothers collapse and how to ensure it doesn’t happen again, there was much emphasis on changing the EU’s economic imperatives away from austerity policies that contributed to Brexit, the rise of the extreme […]
October 4th, 2018. Category: Uncategorized.
This article was first posted on Social Europe on 4 October 2018:
n the acres of recent coverage about the causes of the Lehman Brothers collapse and how to ensure it doesn’t happen again, there was much emphasis on changing the EU’s economic imperatives away from austerity policies that contributed to Brexit, the rise of the extreme right, increasing opposition to immigration and sluggish economic activity, particularly in the Eurozone.
What was absent was detailed discussion of what needs to be done on the ground. In a Green New Deal group report‘Europe’s Choice – How Green QE and Fairer Taxes Can Replace Austerity’ we proposed a comprehensive plan for a continent-wide sustainable infrastructure project to generate ‘jobs in every community’. In answer to the usual question of how this will be paid for we proposed that such funding would come from a new round of Quantitative Easing (QE), but, this time, the e-currency would take the form of ‘Green Infrastructure QE’ to fund vital, labour intensive economic activity. In the medium term, substantial funding could come from a more effective and fairer increase in the tax collected in Europe from wealthy individuals and companies.
It has been estimated that tax evasion (illegal non-payment or under-payment of taxes) in the EU is approximately €860 billion a year. Tax avoidance (seeking to minimise a tax bill without deliberate deception), which is the other key component of the tax gap in Europe, is harder to assess, but an estimate might be €150 billion a year. In combination, it is therefore likely that tax evasion and tax avoidance might cost the governments of the member states €1 trillion a year.
The form such a programme would take in the UK was detailed in our recent publication Jobs in Every Constituency: A Green New Deal Election Manifesto and consists of a nation-wide, carbon emissions reducing infrastructure programme focusing on:
- Making the UK’s 30m buildings super-energy-efficient to dramatically reduce energy bills, fuel poverty and greenhouse gas emissions;
- Accelerating the shift to renewable electricity supplies and storage, given the dramatic drop in their price worldwide and increased availability;
- Tackling the housing crisis by building affordable, highly insulated new homes, predominantly on brownfield sites;
- Transport policy that concentrates on rebuilding local public transport links;
- Properly maintaining the UK’s road and rail system;
- Encouraging electric vehicles for business and personal use and sharing.
This is labour intensive, takes place in every locality and consists of work that is difficult to automate. It also contributes to improving social cohesion and environmental sustainability.
This massive work programme in energy and transport would tackle many existing problems in our society. It would provide a secure career structure for decades. This would require a significant number of apprenticeships and the range of long-term jobs would provide increased opportunities for the self-employed and local small businesses. This growth in local economic activity would in turn create other jobs to service this increased spending.
In terms of funding, the upfront cost of this massive infrastructure programme is likely to eventually run into more than £50 billion a year. This could be met by traditional government borrowing at current low interest rates, plus the use of ‘Green Quantitative Easing’ to help rebuild local economies. (This would exploit the government’s ability to create new money without any cost to taxpayers, which has only so far been used to save the financial services sector.) Additional finance could come from fairer taxes and the creation of savings opportunities in local authority bonds and green ISAs, not least to create intergenerational solidarity between savers (most often from older generations) and younger people who would benefit from the jobs created.
It has been estimated that at least £500bn of investment in new low-carbon infrastructure is required over the next 10 years to transform the UK economy, of which £230bn will be required for energy efficiency alone. Transport for the North (TfN) has stated that investing between £60bn and £70bn in the north of England’s antiquated road and rail network between 2020 and 2050 could add almost £100bn in real terms of economic benefit to the UK, along with 850,000 new jobs. Across the country small and relatively cheap transport improvement measures would include improving stations and bus services, park and ride facilities, through to bus priority and cycle lanes, traffic calming schemes, car clubs and bike hire schemes.
These enormous sums would need to be used judiciously to ensure a realistically timetabled, carefully costed, and hence non-inflationary, nationwide initiative to train and employ a fairly paid ‘carbon army’ to work on this programme.
Summary Of The GND Spending Proposals
Who Has Prepared The Estimate Of Cost
Total Estimated Cost £’Bn
Number Of Years Over Which Expenditure Will Be Incurred
Likely Annual Cost £’Bn
|Energy efficiency||E3G||230||10||23||Creating a sustainable UK|
|Other low carbon infrastructure||E3G||270||10||27|
|Carbon neutral house building||Green New Deal estimate||60||300,000 houses at £200,000 each a year|
|Improving local transport links||Green New Deal estimate and Transport for the North – estimate tripled for the whole country||6||Creating a sustainable transport system|
|Local road repairs and pot hole fixing||Green New Deal estimates based on data in this report||6.5||10||0.7|
|Total possible annual spend||117|
As Published In The ‘Jobs In Every Constituency‘ Report
The projects suggested are, of course, only suggestions. And as is clear, there is a great deal to do. Choices would still have to be made when establishing the priorities for the Green New Deal. The issue is not a shortage of demand or ideas: the issue is a shortage of willing to deliver what is necessary and desirable.
A Manifesto For Jobs In Every Constituency
The government should commit to a detailed programme explaining how to generate jobs in every constituency, using for example the energy and transport proposals in the Green New Deal. This would require extensive consultation with local government, businesses and communities to establish what such a programme should look like on the ground.
The government should commit to a massive training programme resulting in a huge range of skills to provide the ‘carbon army’ required to bring about a low-carbon future. A carbon finance sector would also be needed to publicise, advice and put into practice the range of large funding packages necessary.
The government must then explain how this approach would both mitigate the effects of any future global economic downturn and help compensate for the expected trends in automation. It must also make clear that a key advantage to such an approach would be to help meet the UK’s obligations under the Paris Agreement to curb carbon emissions.
Time For A Europe-Wide Green New Deal
There is much handwringing by the greens, the left and centre parties about how to stop the rise of the right across the continent. A huge contribution would be for all these parties to adopt such a manifesto for jobs in every community, since it would return a sense of hope for the future, provide economic security for all, whilst fully protecting the environment.
Jeremy Corbyn’s speech had three crucial and interlinked components: the need to transform the economy, to prioritise improving conditions in the “left-behind” areas, and a call for a “green jobs revolution in every nation and region”.
This letter was in the Guardian this morning, referring to the new Green New Deal report:
Ten years ago this week the Lehman Brothers collapse heralded the worst global economic crisis since the 30s, the political, economic and social effects of which are still being felt today. To help ensure that these adverse trends are reversed it […]
The UN also took up the idea, calling for a global GND in 2009.
But then Tories won in the UK in 2009, the Republicans swept the 2010 midterms, and the idea mostly went quiescent, at least among politicians.
In 2016, a GND became the centerpiece of the Green Party presidential campaign of Jill Stein; indeed, a GND has been part of the US Green Party’s platform for over a decade. (It is also central to the platform of the European Greens — see this study from the Wuppertal Institute.)
Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign included a GND. And then, in the 2018 midterms, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, now a representative-elect, took it up.
But that capsule history of the term itself, the brand, somewhat sells short the intellectual lineage. Many pieces of the GND have been worked on by many people over the years. The constituent ideas — 100 percent clean energy; a just transition to a new, better economy; massive public sector investments — are not new.
Talk of a “blue-green alliance” between labor and environmentalists, built around public infrastructure investments and new jobs, goes all the way back to 2000 presidential candidate Ralph Nader; real work has been underway at least since 2006, when the, er, Blue-Green Alliance was established. The AFL-CIO has its own big infrastructure plan.
Van Jones wrote a book about green jobs back in 2008 and even worked briefly as an Obama green jobs adviser, before a right-wing smear campaign drove him from the administration. The whole green-economy frame almost took root, but once the Dems went on the defensive in 2010, it faded to the background.
In Washington state this year, activists ran a ballot initiative that coupled a carbon tax with a GND-style program of investments, but, in the face of $30 million of oil money, it went down to defeat.
Nonetheless, the basic GND ideas have persisted. And their appeal only grew as climate warnings became more dire. They were in the collective water, like an oversaturated solution, just waiting for a particle around which to crystallize.
That particle came in November.
The GND comes to Washington
After the 2016 race, some of the folks who worked on the Sanders campaign started an organization called Brand New Congress, with the audacious (some might say insane) goal of recruiting 400 fresh new faces to run for, and take over, Congress. Part of the shared platform was an ambitious, WWII-style mobilization on climate change (though not yet branded GND).
That effort did not result in a congressional takeover, but it was not without fruits. Brand New Congress spun off a group called Justice Democrats that went on to recruit several winning candidates like Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Pressley.
Among them was Ocasio-Cortez, the young bartender who ran against incumbent centrist Democrat Joe Crowley in the New York’s 14th District primary. The co-founder of Brand New Congress, Saikat Chakrabarti, became Ocasio-Cortez’s co-campaign manager. (As of January, he will be her chief of staff.) And Ocasio-Cortez, who was already committed to putting climate change at the top of her agenda, eagerly embraced the green mobilization plan and began using the GND branding.
Then came the first week of orientation for new members of Congress.
Several things came together that week. Shortly prior, the IPCC had released its latest report, with the ominous news that humanity has just over a decade to peak and begin rapidly reducing global carbon emissions if there is to be any hope of hitting the (already inadequate) international target of limiting global temperature rise to no more than 2 degrees Celsius.
There was already enormous energy and mobilization on the left, thanks to the election, and young activists were keen to push climate change to the top of the agenda.
Then a piece in the Hill reported that House Democrats had no plans to move on climate change, which appeared nowhere in their list of priorities. Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi started talking the day after the election about a “bipartisan marketplace of ideas,” which is not exactly what you’d call reading the room.
Pelosi signaled that she planned to revive the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming (2007 to 2011, RIP), but activists and the incoming class of social democrats wanted something much bolder.
They didn’t see any point in pursuing cooperation with Republicans, a strategy that has proven fruitless for a decade. And they didn’t want climate policy tucked away in a committee that would do nothing but hold hearings and discuss how real global warming is (spoiler: so real).
But it gave them something to ask for. They couldn’t very well demand the full GND before the new Congress was even sworn in. But they could ask for a commitment.
So the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led organization organizing around a GND, planned a sit-in in Pelosi’s office, to demand a committee with teeth — a committee that would be charged with actually developing a plan to meet the ambitious targets implied by the IPCC report.
Sunrise approached Ocasio-Cortez to ask if she might help publicize the event, perhaps with a tweet. Instead, she vowed to show up. She and her team had been casting around for some early way to push the GND into the public consciousness and onto the Democratic agenda.
Working together, Sunrise, Ocasio-Cortez, and the Justice Democrats quickly hashed out a proposal for a Select Committee on a Green New Deal, outlining their vision for the kind of plan such a committee would produce.
Sunrise brought close to 200 young activists to Pelosi’s office on November 13. Ocasio-Cortez, taking a break from orientation, stopped by to rally them and show her support. The media swarmed.
In retrospect, though it came together on the fly, the timing was fortuitous. The elections were over; there was no presidential election yet; Trump hadn’t tweeted in a few whole minutes; the political press was bored. The IPCC had put climate change in the news. And the prospect of a young, newly elected, not-yet-sworn-in progressive representative leading a youth protest against her leader-to-be proved irresistible.
In the ensuing weeks, Ocasio-Cortez and Sunrise pushed incoming members of Congress to sign on to the GND Select Committee plan. On December 10, there was another sit-in in Pelosi’s office, this time with activists stretched out the door. By the end, 40 members of Congress — including several notable senators like Booker, Sanders, and Jeff Merkley, each a potential 2020 presidential candidate — signed on to support the committee.
It was an activist campaign building momentum for serious climate action, and it was making headlines.
Dem leadership gives activists the stiff arm
Nonetheless, it seems Democratic leadership was not particularly happy about a group of upstarts laying claim to a major issue and instructing the caucus how to approach it. Pelosi largely gave Ocasio-Cortez and activists the cold shoulder. They were not warned before Steny Hoyer announced on Wednesday that the committee will not have subpoena power. And they were not warned before it leaked on Thursday that Rep. Kathy Castor of Florida had been chosen to head the committee, which would in fact be the same old select committee on climate change.
As for the GND? “I think they have some terrific ideas,” Castor said, all but patting activists on the head. “But that’s not going to be our sole focus.”
What about the activists’ other major demand, that no one who accepts fossil fuel money be allowed on the committee? “I don’t think you can do that under the First Amendment, really,” she said.
She later admitted to Kaufman at the Huffington Post that this peculiar bit of constitutional interpretation was “inartful,” and she just doesn’t know if she can do that as chair of the committee. She says maybe she’ll talk it over with the caucus.
This is a clear rebuke from Pelosi and Hoyer, not only cutting short a growing activist campaign, without warning, on the eve of the holidays, but also appointing a committee chair who isn’t briefed on the debate around the committee, is reliable but undistinguished on environmental issues, and clearly hasn’t been prepared for the activist fury that awaits her. (It doesn’t seem particularly fair to Castor, either.)
Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL) on the far right and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in the center. Between them is Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-OH). Alex Wong/Getty Images
“They’re not willing to go out on a limb unless they’re confident that they have the full support of the caucus,” says Evan Weber, a co-founder of Sunrise, “which for us is disappointing but not all that surprising.”
“What we thought was, let’s try to get the smallest possible thing done, which is get all Democrats to agree that we should make a plan,” says Chakrabarti, but even that “isn’t so easy.”
Here’s a revealing fact about this clash.
Though Chakrabarti may consider it the “smallest possible thing,” anyone who glances at Ocasio-Cortez’s document will realize that it is far from small or easy. It doesn’t just call for a committee. It says that no one who receives any fossil fuel funding may serve on the committee (which would rule out a good swath of senior Democrats).
It requires that the committee produce a plan that fully decarbonizes the economy, invests trillions of dollars, and provides a federal job guarantee, while addressing and mitigating historical inequalities. (Oh, and it might also include such “additional measures such as basic income programs [or] universal health care programs.”)
In short, it charges the committee with developing a plan of vaulting ambition and complexity. If representatives were mainly focused on policy, some might have raised cautions along these lines.
But neither Chakrabarti and Weber has heard any policy objections. No one has asked about, say, the federal jobs guarantee. Rather, the objections have been almost entirely about turf.
As Evan Weber, co-founder of Sunrise, says, “certain politicians who were not excited about any select committee” claimed that the committee’s jurisdiction would override the jurisdiction and authority of existing committees. “They’re not willing to go out on a limb unless they’re confident that they have the full support of the caucus,” says Evan Weber, a co-founder of Sunrise, “which for us is disappointing but not all that surprising.”
Our ultimate end goal isn’t a Select Committee.
Our goal is to treat Climate Change like the serious, existential threat it is by drafting an ambitious solution on the scale necessary – aka a Green New Deal – to get it done.
A weak committee misses the point & endangers people.
Senior Dem leadership says @Ocasio2018’s New Green Deal committee won’t get subpoena power. The 2011 committee it plans to replace had those powers.https://thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/422132-house-climate-change-panel-unlikely-to-have-subpoena-power …
The proposal never meant to assign the select committee the power to introduce legislation, Weber says, but to make members more comfortable, language was added clarifying as much. The committee could only produce a plan, as draft legislation for other committees to take up or not as they see fit. “For us,” Weber says, “the more important thing for the draft legislation was always to have a platform for candidates to run on in 2020.”
But in the end, the dispute was less about concrete issues of jurisdiction than a message to newcomers. As E&E reports, “many Democratic lawmakers say the panel could be a landing place for many of the freshmen members who have said they’d like to be on Energy and Commerce.” The youngsters can have a committee to hold hearings and make headlines. As for legislation, we adults have got that covered.
Would Ocasio-Cortez accept a spot on the committee? “She doesn’t want to be on a committee just for the sake of being on a committee,” says Chakrabarti.
What’s next for the GND
Though the committee fight was discouraging (and not everyone agrees about its tactical wisdom), its reverberations reached well beyond DC. It produced an enormous jolt for the movement.
All the sudden, the left has found something it had lacked for years: an ambitious, positive climate program, something as bold and catchy as “Medicare-for-all” in health care. Advocates and activists are on board and wonks are thinking about the mechanics.
“We thought it would take a year” to get a movement going around the GND, Chakrabarti says. Instead, “it took weeks.”
Leaders have a few ideas about what to do next, including the possibility of a GND caucus in the House (after all, the membership has already mostly identified itself) and continued direct action.
But the top priority after the holidays is to begin the process of putting real policy meat on the GND bones — hammering out an actual policy platform.
“If they’re not going to develop the plan,” Weber of Sunrise says. “We will. We’ll get together the scientists, the engineers, the community leaders, the mayors and city councilors, create the plan ourselves, and go out and build the public and political support to make it happen over the next two years.”
As Weber concedes, “GND” can mean just about anything at the moment. Now the race is on to make it mean something in particular — to produce something that activists and wonks can agree on, that politicians can run on, and that the public can rally around.
A new think tank will transform the GND into a policy platform
As of now, the movement’s only “official” version of the GND is the Ocasio-Cortez document. As sweeping and ambitious as it is, it is less a policy platform than a set of high-level goals. Each one (e.g., “decarbonizing, repairing, and improving transportation and other infrastructure”) would entail dozens of policies, at different levels of government.
The first and thus far only serious effort to fill out the policy side came in a report from Greg Carlock at the upstart think tank Data For Progress. But even that report is less a specific set of policy choices than an extensive policy menu — a set of options for each of the program’s large-scale goals, everything from building standards to new techniques in agriculture to investments in transit. It is something like a detailed snapshot of the policy landscape, from which an architect could bricolage together a plan.
It is also a narrative tying those goals together, and its central theme — the central theme of all contemporary GND work — is that the GND is not just a climate change policy. It is a vision for a new kind of economy, built around a new set of social and economic relationships. It is not merely a way to reduce emissions, but also to ameliorate the other symptoms and dysfunctions of a late capitalist economy: growing inequality and concentration of power at the top.
“Climate change is an emergent property of a bad economic system,” Carlock says. That outmoded economic system — the nebulous set of assumptions and power relationships that goes under the name “neoliberalism” — is the real target of the GND.
The GND is, at its heart, a form of social-democratic populism. Its intent is to involve the entire citizenry in the shared project of adapting to the 21st century, and in so doing materially improve the quality of life of the poor and middle class. It is an attempt to rebalance the economy and the political system, away from a monomaniacal focus on private goods, toward a more generous view of public goods and public purpose.
At least that’s the idea. But getting from that idea to concrete policy platform that diverse constituencies can rally around (and a broad array of Democrats can endorse) will be a delicate and charged undertaking. Making those fraught policy choices is largely going to fall on the shoulders of a young policy analyst whose name I suspect you will be hearing much more of: Rhiana Gunn-Wright
I delighted in the wonkery, but Gunn-Wright also returned the conversation again and again to the effects of the program on ordinary people, especially the poor and vulnerable. “I spent a little bit of time as a [user experience] researcher,” she says, “so my team also thinks about the end user.” How does the average citizen find a suitable job, or get help putting solar panels on their roof?
“If you have more money or access to power, you can either opt out or pay to make it simpler,” she says. “The people who will have to go through all the mess are generally poorer people, with the least access to power.”
Gunn-Wright’s command of the issues, coupled with her unapologetic belief in the public sector to “shape markets and direct innovation,” coupled with her evident concern for the low-income and working classes, make me excited to see what New Consensus produces.
Yet it remains an almost outlandishly ambitious undertaking: to coordinate and develop a coherent policy platform that can guide a transformation of the economy, decarbonize every economic sector, guarantee every American a well-paying job with good benefits, strengthen the resilience of the country’s most vulnerable communities, command the support of politicians from every region of the country, and inspire enthusiasm and action among activists.
But Gunn-Wright is optimistic. “I’ve never worked on a policy issue where I was met with so much good will, people who will share information, people willing to leverage their talents and have conversations,” she says. “That gives me a lot of hope.”
So it still remains to hammer out a specific GND. But that doesn’t mean there’s no substance to it at all. At least among the movement around Sunrise and Ocasio-Cortez, there is a substantial degree of consensus about the core elements.
The three core principles of the GND: decarbonization, jobs, and justice
I asked the same question of everyone I talked to: What are your bottom lines? What must be in a policy platform for it to earn the name GND? Answers varied considerably in their details and emphasis, but they clustered around three basic principles.
1) The plan must decarbonize the economy.
The young people who will have to live with the effects of climate change want a plan that begins with what is necessary rather than what is deemed politically possible. “We want the policy to match the findings in the IPCC report — to match the scale of the problem,” says Waleed Shahid of Justice Democrats. Or as Gunn-Wright puts it, “We need to go all the way.”
That means decarbonizing the US economy: getting the electricity sector to zero carbon as soon as possible and other sectors shortly thereafter. That is a gargantuan undertaking that will touch every American life.
Ocasio-Cortez’s platform calls for 100 percent renewable electricity within 10 years, but very few policy experts believe that is possible. Carlock, along with most other wonks in the field, thinks it’s preferable to shoot for 100 percent “clean and renewable energy,” to make room for non-renewable carbon-free options like existing nuclear plants or any new developments in nuclear, biomass, or carbon capture and sequestration. And they also think it’s best to push the target out a bit. (Carlock has it at 2035.)
Finding feasible and cost-effective paths to a carbon-free grid is as important as ever! For guidance, @max_energy @samthernstrom & I reviewed 40 academic studies charting course to a decarbonized power system & synthesized findings in a paper just published in the journal Joule. 2:17 PM – Dec 11, 2018
Other energy applications will be even more challenging than electricity. Decarbonizing transportation will involve radically accelerating the spread of electric vehicles, possibly by banning gasoline and diesel vehicle sales by 2030, and figuring out what to do with aviation and heavy transport.
Buildings produce about 40 percent of annual US carbon emissions. Decarbonizing buildings will involve implementing zero-carbon standards for all new buildings and funding the wholesale retrofitting of existing buildings, millions of which use fossil fuels like natural gas for heating and cooling.
Then there’s heavy industry, where decarbonization remains something of a mystery, the work barely begun.
And on and on. Ocasio-Cortez’s plan actually calls for decarbonizing not just electricity but the entire US economy in 10 years, which is almost certainly impossible absent radical reductions in Americans’ energy consumption, something like imposed austerity — and nobody thinks Americans are that scared of climate change. Even decarbonizing the economy by 2050, as Carlock’s report calls for, is an extraordinarily daunting challenge, involving hundreds of discrete policy problems, each facing their own dilemmas and entrenched interests.
2) The plan must include a federal jobs guarantee and large-scale public investments.
Again, the GND is not just climate policy. It’s about transforming the economy, lifting the up the poor and middle class, and creating a more muscular, active public sector.
The GND “opens an opportunity to renegotiate power relationships between the public sector, the private sector, and the people,” says Gunn-Wright. “We are interested in solutions that create more democratic structures in our economy.”
Weber says that the key is to “connect [the GND] inextricably to the economic pain that so many Americans still feel, and show people that there’s a way to build a better economy and improve their lives through action on climate change.”
To that end, the GND would involve large-scale investments, on the order of trillions of dollars over 10 years, alongside a federal jobs guarantee. A job paying at least $15 an hour, with good benefits, would be available to anyone who wanted one.
Politically, this is the key to the GND. It’s a program that can involve everyone and help everyone — and, theoretically, gain support from everyone, even those in red states who do not care about climate change. The investments and the job guarantee take the GND out of the realm of environmental policy and move it into the realm of transformational economic policy.
But policy-wise, this is also, in many ways, the least cooked piece. The federal job guarantee has substantial support among wonks (here’s an argument in favor from scholars at the Levy Economics Institute), but also a good bit of opposition. (Matt Bruenig runs through some of the objections; Josh Bivens of the Economic Policy Institute argues for other ways of reaching full employment.)
The way to think about the basic problem is: You’re attempting to train and employ everyone who happens to want a job at the moment — a constantly fluctuating flow of people with differing skills, who will need jobs for differing periods of time. You’re trying to provide those jobs through a massive program of investments. But what sorts of investments provide work for a job force of perpetually shifting skills and composition? Specifically, what subset of those investments are both “green” and suitable for a morphing, countercyclical job force?
It’s not as easy to spend money and employ people as it might seem. Carlock has numerous investment ideas in his report (stuff like brownfield restoration and tree-planting), but even if enough ideas can be found, administration, which would be spread out in state offices and community centers across the country, remains daunting.
“The idea that thousands of administrations across the country will be able to usefully employ random flows of labor with random sets of skills in random durations is fairly implausible,” argues Bruenig.
Gunn-Wright notes that there are many paths to a jobs guarantee, some incremental. Both the jobs and investment pieces could be phased in, expanded through testing and experimentation. “Pilot and scale,” Carlock says.
Still, at the very least, there’s a good bit of policy work ahead for this (politically central) element of the plan to become practicable legislation.
3) The plan must include a just transition.
Several people I talked to stressed that they want to avoid the mistakes of the original New Deal, many elements of which entrenched or exacerbated racial inequalities. Everyone wants to make sure that the plan includes protections for those hardest hit by historical discrimination and those set to suffer most from the effects of climate change — in Ocasio-Cortez’s document, “low-income communities, communities of color, indigenous communities, [and] the front-line communities most affected by climate change, pollution, and other environmental harm.”
Part of that is workforce training and the job guarantee, part of it is ensuring that all those jobs come with strong labor, environmental, and nondiscrimination standards, part of it is investments in those communities to fund programs like lead remediation, and part of it is making sure that all the investments — that all parts of the GND — follow strong environmental-justice standards.
Beyond these three core principles, the GND is still capacious enough to include a wide variety of preferences and perspectives. Journalist Aronoff best expresses the maximum, self-avowedly socialist version, painting an idyllic picture of a family provisioned with publicly funded work, child care benefits, and elder care. The Sierra Club has a somewhat more modest version.
As the GND brand spreads, traditional advocacy and policy groups are likely to break off more manageable chunks under the same rubric. After all, the GND is so sweeping that virtually any climate policy can claim to be part of it.
The delicate dance is to keep the GND fuzzy enough to allow a broad coalition of people and interests to see themselves in it — which is, somewhat miraculously, what seems to have happened so far — while specifying it enough to avoid having it watered down into a feel-good buzzword.
And that has to be done while navigating all the prodigious challenges ahead.
The top three challenges facing the GND: paying for it, convincing the public, and winning over Democrats
As you’ve probably gathered by now, the GND is much more ambitious than most policy ideas that have been bouncing around Washington, DC, the past few decades. Moving it from idea to legislation will involve overcoming obstacles almost too numerous to list.
Because the GND is, at its core, an argument for radical change, it is certain to inspire reaction — a defense of the status quo. And as Albert Hirschman wrote in his 1991 book The Rhetoric of Reaction, the arguments will cluster around the three core reactionary themes (quoting Hirschman): “futility — the claim that all attempts at social engineering are powerless to alter the natural order of things; perversity — the argument that interventions will actually backfire and have the opposite of their intended effect; and jeopardy — the idea that a new, possibly more radical reform will threaten older, hard won liberal reforms.”
Those arguments will take innumerable forms. I will focus on one key question the movement must answer and two key constituencies it must win over.
1) “How are you going to pay for it?”
The first and most persistent question facing any social reform in the US is how it will pay for itself. The right has spent more than half a century in the US waging a propaganda campaign intended to convince Americans of a few key things: 1) the federal budget must be balanced, with every dollar spent “paid for” with a dollar of revenue raised, lest inflation destroy us all; 2) taxes are high and burdensome and any effort to raise taxes is, de facto, bad; 3) government is incompetent and its spending is always wasteful; and 4) America is broke, in debt, with crippling liabilities coming due soon.
To be clear, all four are false. They are pernicious myths, motivated by the desire to prevent progressive social reform. They are, to use a technical term, bullshit.
But they are, nonetheless, widely accepted bullshit that shapes the US political economy. Indeed, they have been repeated so often, for so long, that they have permeated the establishments of both parties and shaped the folk political theories of the average American. Stop a random person on the street and they might not know much about politics, but they will be certain that the country is in debt and can’t afford nice things.
Countering the “pay for it” question can be done in several ways. One, which Ocasio-Cortez has practiced herself, is to point out the hypocrisy. When Congress funnels trillions to the military or cuts taxes for the wealthy, no one asks how they will pay for it. Pay-for demands seem only to apply to Democrats, and only for social spending.
The second is to point out that climate change impacts are going to cost more than climate mitigation anyway. The GND is big, but “big things will happen,” says Chakrabarti. “The two options are, either we’re going to intentionally do the big things we want, or big things we don’t want will happen to us.”
The third is to point out that there are options for raising revenue. There’s a carbon tax, obviously — the GND movement is opposed to carbon pricing-only strategies, but they all acknowledge a role for pricing — but Gunn-Wright also mentions a financial transactions tax and pulling some of the returns of large government investments back in as revenue. More recently, in an interview with 60 Minutes, Ocasio-Cortez mentioned restoring income tax rates of up to 70 percent on the ultra-wealthy as a way of raising revenue. “That doesn’t mean all $10 million are taxed at an extremely high rate, but it means that as you climb up this ladder you should be contributing more,” she told Anderson Cooper.
The fourth, and boldest, is to reject the question entirely.
There is great enthusiasm on the left right now for Modern Monetary Theory and related ideas and scholars. (Vox’s Dylan Matthews wrote a great explainer on Modern Monetary Theory a few years ago, and another more recently about Bernie Sanders’s adoption of the idea.) The core ideas are fairly simple.
If the question is what the US can afford to invest, the way to think about it is not in terms of how much money the country has. It literally has as much money as it wants. It prints its own money! (The US has a “fiat currency,” in the lingo.)
The US government can spend all the money it wants. What ultimately sets the limits on America’s ability to invest are its resources. It has so much labor potential, so much natural resources, so much manufacturing capacity, etc. By paying for stuff, injecting money into the economy, the government puts those resources to work.
If the economy overheats, one or more of those resources nears its limits, scarcity drives prices up and inflation ensues. To stop short of that, the government can pull some money out, by scaling back programs or raising taxes. Taxes are simply a way of extracting money from the economy.
Stony Brook University professor Stephanie Kelton (a Modern Monetary Theory guru, Sanders adviser, and likely GND adviser in some capacity, at some point) calls it an economy’s natural speed limit. As long as the economy stays under that limit and avoids inflation, the government can spend more money. A deficit isn’t a bad thing, it’s just a foot on the accelerator.
The notion of balanced federal budgets — which Democrats adopted as their own under Obama through the absurd “PayGo” rules, and look likely to adopt again next session — amounts, Kelton says, to a promise: “I’m going to take a dollar out of the economy, usually in taxes, for every dollar I plan to put in.”
But why would you do that? Why would you slow the economy a bit for every bit you boosted it?
“If the deficit has to be 4.7 percent of GDP to create the economy we want, with full employment, low inflation, and poverty going down,” she says, “who cares? If we can create the economy we want with a deficit of 2.1 percent, that’s fine too. The budget outcome isn’t the thing that matters, it’s the real economic conditions.”
The way to approach a GND, she says, is to adopt the method of economist John Maynard Keynes in his book How to Pay for the War: Model the economy’s available resources; figure out what you can deploy and still avoid inflation; figure out how much private consumption spending you have to displace to make room for the necessary war spending; and finally, ensure a just transition, i.e., make sure that the poor and middle class, the ones deferring their private consumption spending, are rewarded for their sacrifice. (That’s what US War Bonds were about.)
Winning that argument — convincing Americans that it’s the economy, not the budget, that needs to be balanced — is an uphill battle, to say the least, lifting a lot of historical baggage.
One way or another, GND proponents will relentlessly face, from both sides of the aisle, the question: How will you pay for it? Whatever their answer, they had better get it worked out, because the attacks are already incoming.
2) Winning over the public
GND proponents tout polling showing that majorities of the public support a green job guarantee and other elements of the GND.
Data for Progress has done extensive polling on a green jobs guarantee. It has found that a green jobs guarantee outpolls a straight jobs guarantee, especially among young people. It even brings Trump voters almost (but not quite) up to majority approval.
More recently, the movement has been excited about a recent survey from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communications, which shows that a GND commands majority support even from Republicans.
“Green jobs are overwhelmingly popular with voters. This is the future,” says Data for Progress co-founder Sean McElwee. “The question is not if we get a Green New Deal. We will have a Green New Deal. The question is how much beautiful socialist bullshit we get out of it after we wrestle with the Blue Dogs.”
It is true: In terms of public opinion, this is an incredibly strong position from which to start. The headline features of a GND sound bold and forward-looking and people generally react well to them.
Nonetheless, having seen countless polls come and go over the years, I have a few rules of thumb. First, people like good things and will react positively to them in polls. Look at the Yale survey question: “produce,” “strengthen,” “upgrade,” “provide.” Those are good things. Of course people want them! They want more health, more benefits, better wages, cleaner energy.
Conversely, if you poll bad things, like taxes, increased costs, bureaucracy, government control over private decisions, and wasteful spending, people react badly. (Data for Progress says it is in the process of testing the green jobs guarantee against negative framing language.)
People don’t have deep or settled views on most things and generally respond to identity cues, associations, and above all, messengers. In a poll, you take the messenger out of the equation and provide carefully curated cues. That tells you almost nothing about how people will get information or make decisions in the real world.
In the real world, if the GND looks like it has any chance of becoming a reality, it will face a giant right-wing smear campaign, coordinated across conservative media, think tanks, and politicians, funded by effectively unlimited fossil fuel wealth. The right will rush to define the GND as a silly, ridiculous, naive, unaffordable government boondoggle meant to destroy your way of life and funnel your taxpayer money to Democratic constituencies like illegal immigrants.
And keep in mind, the right-wing machine does not have to win that messaging battle. It just has to fight it, furiously, enough to make the GND controversial, to polarize the issue and freeze it in the same paralysis that grips the rest of US politics.
As Joe Romm of ClimateProgress points out, the most important finding in the survey is this one:
Virtually no one has heard of the GND. Right now, in the minds of the vast majority of Americans, “GND” signifies almost nothing. The task of defining it for them lies entirely ahead.
Advocates will work to define it with positive imagery. But they will not have the field to themselves. And they will likely never have access to the kind of money fossil fuels can spend to crush them. If they win the messaging battles to come, it will be with people power and media savvy.
3) Winning over Democrats
Veteran Democrats like Pelosi and Hoyer came of age in an era in which Democrats were on the defensive. Bill Clinton won with a “third way,” pledging fealty to markets and an end to big government. Ever since, Democrats have been backing into progress, moving incrementally, accepting basic conservative critiques of muscular social democracy.
And as the Republican Party has become more rabidly conservative and corrupt, congressional Democrats have developed a particular culture. They see themselves as the Good Guys, the ones who still care about good government, fiscal responsibility, and bipartisanship. They are loathe to break norms the way the GOP routinely has. They don’t want to fight dirty.
More than anything, it is that culture of caution and manners with which GND proponents must contend. The idea of adopting bold policy pledges with no care as to whether they draw any bipartisan support is deeply alien to congressional Democrats. They live in fear of Republican attacks, which are faithfully echoed throughout DC media. They don’t want to “stick their heads up” or “give Republicans ammunition.” They are hoping, on some level, that if they keep their heads down and don’t distract anyone, voters will focus on how much they don’t like Trump.
“Even the most progressive of the progressives suffer from a certain Stockholm syndrome from living under neoliberalism for 40 years,” says Chakrabarti.
But there is no way to soft-pedal something like the GND. There is no way to pretend that it is incremental or fully “paid for.” There is no way to pretend that GOP leadership, so deeply in hock to fossil fuel funding, is going to offer any kind of support for any part of it.
The GND offers Americans a bracing new alternative, not a hesitant step forward — a rejection of Republican dogma and fossil fuel energy, not a compromise with them. To rally Americans behind it, Democrats will have to “paint the picture and the vision,” Chakrabarti says. “You have to sell the American people that this is possible to make it possible.”
More than any process or jurisdictional issue, this is the choice that will face Democrats in coming years: to respond to Trump by promising a return to ordinary politics, or to respond to Trump by promising to strive for something genuinely new and better.
“What does America get if Dems take power in 2020?” Chakrabarti asks. “Either that can be a boring, crappy vision that no one’s going to get excited by, or it’s going to be an exciting vision that people will want to come out and vote for.”
The activists who have kickstarted this unlikely movement are well aware that they are the underdogs in this fight. The GND “would be a direct blow to some of the wealthiest and most powerful interests in the world,” says Weber, “and they’re not going to accept it lying down.”
He knows that tons of fossil fuel money is gearing up to descend on the movement. And he knows that Democrats will be difficult to rouse. He knows that even if Dems take power in 2020, any legislation will eventually have to contend with the Senate, where the Energy and Natural Resources Committee will be run by West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, who literally shot the last climate bill (which was a hell of a lot less ambitious than a GND).
“Even if we get the politics right, I still think that we’re going to need sustained mass protest, extended labor shutdowns, and general strikes to begin as soon as possible after Election Day 2020,” says Weber. “That’s going to take convincing the American people that this is an absolute moral and economic necessity, and the only thing standing in the way of it happening is the political class.”
It is a long shot. But as the IPCC has made clear, long shots are the only shots left. It is not the elderly members of Congress who will live with the havoc forecast by climate scientists, it is the young activists who are amassing on their doorsteps and in their offices. Those young activists are looking ahead further than the next election cycle. Their families will suffer the consequences of these choices.
But they believe that history is on their side. “The most powerful force known to humans is ideology,” says McElwee. Republicans have pushed through “radically unpopular policies because of their commitment to ideology.” But today, he says, “young people have the ideas that people want to be associated with. We shape ideology and that’s incredibly fucking powerful.”
Climate politics is, now as ever, a choice between changes that seem impossible and a future that seems unthinkable. For years, US politics has denied and avoided that choice. In their own way, Democrats — the “adults” who want to reserve the power to make these decisions — have avoided it just like Republicans.
Facing it squarely means radicalism. Now, a real response to climate change, a response on the scale of what the crisis demands, is on the table. It is an option. It has a name.
Whether America can work its way past polarization, paralysis, and structural barriers to change to actually grasp that option, to take a leap into a new future, very much remains to be seen. But there can be no more ignoring the choice.
Kate Aronoff, NBC
Like the first New Deal, then, the Green New Deal isn’t a specific set of policies so much as a values framework under which any number of policies can fit. Electrifying everything, constraining the power of the world’s most powerful industry and preparing for what will almost certainly be the largest mass migration in human history don’t slot neatly into a single Medicare for All-style policy or slogan. On the other hand, neither did clawing our way out of the Great Depression.
After 40 years of neoliberal economics espousing the idea that, per Margaret Thatcher, there is “no such thing as society,” the Green New Deal asserts the now apparently radical idea that the government has a responsibility to provide society with a decent quality of life, including a planet that isn’t actively hostile to human life.
Smartly, calls for a Green New Deal help tie solutions to the climate crisis to the promise of a stronger and more equitable economy, upending the false “jobs versus environment” dichotomy that conservatives and the fossil fuel industry have worked so hard to cultivate. Thanks to their success on that front, climate change has been framed as an issue of collective sacrifice, requiring all of us to give up everything from plastic straws to jobs to hamburgers. Even favored Democratic proposals like cap-and-trade and carbon taxes feed the notion that everyone will have to pay up. (This narrative was exploited successfully in November in Washington state, where the oil and gas industry spent some $30 million to defeat what would have been the country’s first statewide carbon pricing mechanism.)
Calls for a Green New Deal help tie solutions to the climate crisis to the promise of a stronger and more equitable economy, upending the false jobs-vs.-environment dichotomy.
The fossil fuel industry loves the idea that all of us are to blame for our warming planet, because it allows them to rhetorically align themselves with everyman oil workers and against jet-setting billionaires like Tom Steyer or Michael Bloomberg. In the process, they shift both the conversation and the responsibility away from the 100 fossil fuel producers that have been responsible for 71 percent of greenhouse gas emissions since 1988.
The really inconvenient truth about climate change — the thing that could build popular momentum around doing something about it, at the expense of fossil fuel industry profits — is that the solutions for it stand to dramatically improve the lives of millions of people, especially compared to the collective but unequally distributed ruin we face otherwise. A job guarantee — a centerpiece of several Green New Deal proposals endorsed by politicians from New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand to Ocasio-Cortez — could end involuntary unemployment as we know it, providing a well-paid job to everyone who needs one.
New York could finally fix the MTA, as cities around the country get robust public transit networks and beautiful, no-carbon public housing of the sort found in locales from Vienna to Chile. And from Appalachia to Alaska, communities whose livelihoods have been bound up in fossil fuels could receive the investments needed to diversify their economies, as coal miners and rig operators are re-trained by their unions to help build the clean-energy future.
Spain recently helped show what this future could look like. The country’s new social democratic government plans to shutter its last coal mines by year’s end. With the support of Spanish trade unions, they’ll also invest the relatively small sum of $282 million to put the country’s already-shrinking fleet of coal workers to work restoring former mines and learning new skills in the renewables sector.
Lest this transition be all about work, though, refocusing the economy around producing more of what we need — renewable power, care work, education — and less of what we don’t — fossil fuels and cheap junk — also could shorten America’s outrageously inflated work week.
For these and other reasons, a Green New Deal would be wildly popular. Polling from the upstart progressive think tank Data for Progress suggests that a majority of Americans in every state support calls for a federal job guarantee, even more so if those jobs help push us toward a low-carbon future. Newer polling has also found that 66 percent of Americans overall support a green jobs program, and that only 12 percent would oppose such a plan. Support is stronger still among people under 45, who are on the cusp of becoming the country’s largest voting bloc.
While it’s hard to imagine Democrats pushing even popular legislation through while Republicans control the Senate and the White House, they can still put the ruling party in a tough spot as the 2020 election looms. A national debate over a Green New Deal would force the GOP to openly side with their fossil fuel executive donors instead of the American public, and argue against what could potentially become the biggest job creation program in American history. If the GOP is willing to spend $3.8 trillion on tax cuts for the wealthy, why won’t it invest even a fraction of that sum providing a dignified quality of life for the country’s less than 80,000 remaining coal workers as their mines continue closing? Whether they believe in climate change or not, it would be hard for lawmakers to justify rejecting a plan to lift millions of Americans out of poverty and bring the nation’s crumbling infrastructure fully into the 21st century. Why hold the future of today’s children hostage for the profits of a few multinational corporations?
“Little groups of earnest men and women have told us of this havoc… the evils that we have brought upon ourselves today and the even greater evils that will attend our children unless we act,” President Franklin Delano Roosevelt told Congress in 1935, requesting $4 billion for public works projects. “Such is the condition that attends the exploitation of our natural resources if we continue our planless course.”
Eight decades later, the Democratic Party’s Congressional leadership can listen to today’s little earnest groups and commit to planning for a Green New Deal. Or they can join Republicans on their planless course toward even greater evils.
Kate Aronoff is a Brooklyn-based writer covering climate and American politics, and a regular contributor to In These Times. She is the co-editor, with Michael Kazin and Peter Dreier, of a forthcoming anthology about democratic socialism in the United States.
Atlantic – Dec 5th
I’ve seen the Green New Deal talked about as a story of Democrats in disarray, or as another example of the party’s turn toward socialism. Both analyses miss the mark. The Green New Deal is one of the most interesting—and strategic—left-wing policy interventions from the Democratic Party in years.
As I wrote last year, the Democrats have a problem: They are the only major political party that cares about climate change, but they don’t have a national strategy to address it.
From the successes, a pattern has emerged. Economists tend to prefer policies that work across the entire economy at once by integrating the costs of climate change into the price of gas, food, and other consumer goods. But voters—who have more quotidian concerns than optimally elegant economic policy—don’t always feel the same way. They don’t want gas prices to go up. And that means they support policies that remake one sector of the economy at a time, usually by mandating the use of technology. Economists like to disparage these policies as “kludges” or “command and control.” But Americans like them.
Recently, a bipartisan group of 17 governors decided that they needed to fight President Trump on climate change. In September, a few of them got onstage in San Francisco to announce new programs to rival the president’s deregulation.
Republican and Democratic governors, fighting Trump, on climate! The story had conflict, personalities, global stakes: Everything you’d want for a CNN-ready brawl. Everything except excitement. Only one of the programs—a pledge to spend $1.4 billion on new electric-car infrastructure—was compelling and easy to explain. The others rapidly strayed into the technical or the vague (and inadequate?).
And what should they have done? Governors, like presidents, are constrained; they can’t do much without the support of state legislatures. And dirt is a worthy topic for climate regulation. As it happens, a large amount of carbon sits in American dirt. If that carbon escapes into the atmosphere, it will worsen climate change. Should a small nation ever appoint you despot of all climate laws, please do something about dirt. But generally and politically speaking, dirt does not get the people going. Upon hearing the slogan “Dirt: Now More Than Ever,” most voters will not picture overflowing cornucopias of prosperity. They will picture bath time.
I have come to think of this tension as climate policy’s Boring as Dirt problem: the bad problem. The bad problem recognizes that climate change is an interesting challenge. It is scary and massive and apocalyptic, and its attendant disasters (especially hurricanes, wildfires, and floods) make for good TV. But the policies that will address climate change do not pack the same punch. They are technical and technocratic and quite often dull. At the very least, they will never be as immediate as climate change itself. Floods are powerful, but stormwater management is arcane. Wildfires are ravenous, but electrical-grid upgrades are tedious. Climate change is frightening, but dirt is boring. That’s the bad problem.
Some version of the bad problem probably exists for every issue. Paying for exorbitant cancer drugs is an outrage, but advocating for state-level insurance laws that could reduce their cost is onerous. In a way, addressing the badproblem is part of what elected officials are supposed to do in a republic. But it’s a special problem for climate change, with its all-encompassing cause and countless diffuse harms. To fix climate change, you have to pass laws about dirt. Then you have to keep them passed.
The Green New Deal, first and foremost, can be understood as trying to fix the bad problem. In the long term, it’s an ambitious package of laws that will touch every sector of the economy. The Sunrise Movement, a youth-led activism group that has pushed for the policy, has listed seven demands that any Green New Deal must satisfy. They range from requiring the U.S. to get 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources to “decarbonizing, repairing and improving transportation and other infrastructure.” They also call for a massive investment in technology that could directly remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
These are enormous demands that would require either many small pieces of technical legislation or a new executive climate-change agency. Yet they do not alone make the Green New Deal. The single most crucial aspect of the Green New Deal is its proposed job guarantee, a controversial policy that says that every American can have a job with the government if they want one. Data for Progress, a leftist advocacy group, claims that the Green New Deal could generate 10 million new jobs across the country over 10 years.
This policy—a job for every American who wants one—reflects what the party learned from fighting Obamacare’s repeal. Obamacare provides a revealing view into how economists think about policy versus how people experience it. That is, as far as policy makers are concerned, Obamacare comprises a set of clever tweaks and rules meant to change how insurance markets work and lower the cost of health care. Before the law passed, Democratic lawmakers cared deeply about getting those tweaks right.
Yet Obamacare didn’t survive because those new rules worked. They did work, but, in fact, voters hate them. Instead, Obamacare survived because it gave two new superpowers to voters. The first was the power never to be denied health insurance for preexisting conditions, and the second was free or cheap health insurance through Medicaid. The reason Americans jammed the Capitol Hill switchboards last year to protest the repeal—and pulled the lever for Democrats in November—wasn’t that they valued Obamacare’s elegant cost-control mechanism. They wanted to keep their superpowers.
“People who are receiving benefits, they’re going to react pretty strongly to that being taken away from them,” said the political scientist and UC Berkeley professor Paul Pierson in a conversation with Vox last year. “A taxpayer is paying for a lot of stuff and cares a little bit about each thing, but the person who’s receiving the benefits is going to care enormously about that.”
Fixing climate change will include lots of technocratic tweaks, lots of bills about dirt. They will be hard to defend against later repeal. So it would be nice if lawmakers could wed them to a new benefit, a superpower that people will fight for years after passage. Hence the job guarantee—a universal promise of employment meant to win over Americans in general and create more union jobs in particular.
In the near term, though, the Green New Deal isn’t doing that. It’s only a demand for more procedure. At least 17 members of the next House of Representatives, and three Democratic senators, currently support the idea of forming a select committee on a Green New Deal. The idea is partly to take back Congress as a place for policy making. Supporters want the committee to draft legislation over the next two years, build expertise—and then present a near-finished bill to the next Democratic president.
The policy aligns with emerging Democratic strategy, too. The Green New Deal is policy-by-slogan, like “Medicare for All” or “Free Community College” or “Abolish ice.” Those phrases capture a worldview, a promise, and a vision of how life would be different after their passage. They mirror the pungency, if not the politics, of Trump’s promise to “Build the wall.”
The Green New Deal also looks like an economic stimulus plan, which isn’t nothing. The last two Democratic presidents took power during an economic downturn or its immediate aftermath. Most climate bills look like new taxes—and new taxes are not easy to pass in the middle of a recession. But Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal was not a tax, even if it included taxes; it’s remembered instead as the greatest of all stimulus and jobs bills. If Democrats take the White House during a recession, they will have a far easier time passing a Green New Deal than a carbon tax.
Many Americans first heard of the Green New Deal early last month, after Ocasio-Cortez made a surprise appearance at a demonstration in Nancy Pelosi’s office. Just a few days had passed since the midterm election, and Pelosi had yet to lock down the speakership. Hundreds of activists in yellow T-shirts—all bearing the logo of the Sunrise Movement—piled into Pelosi’s office to demand that Democrats support a Green New Deal.
“For me, as a member, I want to thank you all, for giving us as a party the strength to push,” Ocasio-Cortez told the group. “Should Leader Pelosi become the next speaker of the House, we need to tell her that we’ve got her back in showing and pursuing the most progressive energy agenda that this country has ever seen.”
For her first day on Capitol Hill, and her first public act as a representative-elect, Ocasio-Cortez chose to focus on climate change. The decision is notable all by itself. Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, is also the first member of Congress who was born during the George H. W. Bush administration. And the Bush administration is when the modern era of stagnant climate politics began: It’s when Exxon and other oil companies began publicly advocating climate denialism, when the United States blocked a treaty that would have restricted global carbon emissions, when the Senate ratifiedthe UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Almost exactly a month after Ocasio-Cortez turned 1, Congress approved the Global Change Research Act, a law requiring regular federal reports on climate science. It hasn’t passed a major climate bill since. Ocasio-Cortez has spent her entire life watching climate change not get fixed. Now she’s getting her shot at addressing it.
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